Connecting the dots: Learning to read music is worth the effort

Sheet music for Mozart piano sonata
It's like musical HTML/CSS

Matt Stevens, the excellent loopist and guitarist, posed a question on Twitter recently, “Is it important for musicians to be able to read music?

This is a perennial discussion point amongst musicians and often seems to divide down the lines of those who already can and those who can’t favouring their own state. I’m in the can read and think it’s a good thing and here are a few reasons why.

New skills expand your horizons

This is a basic point but learning new things is just a good thing to do. We are Homo Sapiens after all so thinking is part of what defines us. It also can make your brain grow. In a 2004 study reported in Nature it was found that people’s occipital lobes grew when they learned how to juggle. More brain is probably a good thing.

Ability to communicate music efficiently

The ability to receive a piece of paper with some lines and dots on it and process that as instructions is an incredibly efficient way of communicating music. The value of this does depend a lot on the musical context, less useful in a blues band but essential in an orchestra, but having this skill in your box of tricks is great.

In a large group with lots of different parts to the music the efficiency gains are massive. This isn’t even assuming the ability to sight read. Giving musicians the sheet music a day or two before the rehearsal, gig or recording makes everyone’s life easier.

Get different types of gigs

There are gigs where reading is essential, pit bands, show bands, classical ensembles and many recording sessions require the ability to read and sometimes even sight read. The financial lot of the musician is often not great so a new avenue of earning some money is no bad thing.

There is a common objection to this point that these gigs are not much fun and sight read music is in some way less valid because a large proportion of the musician’s mind is just decoding dots. It is a different experience to turning up and jamming but these gigs can be real fun too.

The way that sheet music is a shared language is very cool. To enter a room, set up your instrument, get your sheet music and almost instantly start making coherent music with a bunch of people you may never have met before is an amazing thing. This is efficiency realised and remember you may not always be in the role of player. What if it’s your music you need to get recorded? It’s going to be hard to teach the parts to a big group quickly and it’s going to be expensive if they expect to be paid.

One of the reasons that so many film scores are recorded in the UK, well mostly London but let’s spread the kudos, is that British conservatories tend to teach sight reading very well. For an orchestral score you need to get 50 odd (and they can be very odd) people playing music together quickly. They’re all on the clock and it adds up.

Examine music with a different perspective

Matt made a great point that learning to read musical notation opens up a new way of looking at music, or perhaps that should be meta-music, in that it makes learning a lot of music theory much easier. This is very true and this is another area where knowledge is a good thing to have. It is not crucial to your musicianship to know how or why things work, but it almost never hurts to do so.

I think that music notation’s relationship to music is like HTML/CSS’s relationship to webpages. They are both instruction sets on how to create something. HTML/CSS tells your browser how to render a page of information and notation tells a musician how to render a (or at least their part in) a piece of music. Once you know something of these languages you can nip behind the green curtain and have a look at how things are put together.

This is great in webdesign. The view source function is invaluable in learning how amazing websites have been designed and built. The same is definitely true for music. If you can get your hands on a score for a piece you like there is much to be learned from picking through the musical markup. Again this is sometimes just a more efficient method. You could do it all by ear, but if the information is out there waiting for you why not grab it.

Some qualification of the importance of learning to read music

It is much more important to develop your ear than your ability to read music. Ultimately music is an aural medium and that is where your primary focus as a musician should be, but this other skill won’t hurt your ears at all.

There are lots of abilities that come together to make a great well-rounded musician and many support each other. Reading music and particularly sight reading are great skills that can help you free up some cognitive capacity to use your ears to make the music sound great.

It’s not hard to do

It’s not hard to learn to read music. As with acquiring any new skill start simply and build up slowly. If you can give five minutes of your practice time each day to reading you’ll be bounding along in no time. Start with something very simple like a book of folk melodies from the library and have a go flipping to a random page and playing it after a quick glance.

Don’t stop and go back to correct any mistakes. Make your goal to reach the end of the piece without stopping playing as much of it as you can. Focus on rhythm first and then pitch, so if you’re loosing it try to make sounds in the right rhythm and don’t stop. In a couple of weeks you will notice that you can play pieces all the way through correctly or that you can manage slightly more complicated ones. When you’ve outgrown the folk melodies move on to something a bit more complex or closer to what you normally play.

If you can recruit a friend to the exercise it’s even better. Get together and play something with two parts. Don’t worry about the instrumentation and don’t worry about covering all the parts. Simple piano books have lots of pieces with a melody and bassline to have a go at. Just transpose the lines up or down an octave as your instrument demands.

Why bother?

I believe the effort will be worth it. Even if you will never play in a situation where you need to read a score, being able to grab a music book and play something quickly and easily is a great thing. There are lots of great books of tunes out there waiting for you. Go forth and explore.

The image Mozart- Sonata k331 by Monica Liu is used under a Creative Commons License

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.